Privatized and Aging US Water Infrastructure

A NextGen Blog by Michelle O’Brien, University of North Carolina, Wilmington.
Photos © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. This NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts student essays; sponsors a forum for our student contributors; and invites upper-level students to propose work focused on watershed values, threats and solutions.

Michelle O’Brien is a student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, majoring in Environmental Science with a concentration in Conservation Biology. Read her earlier posts here.


Water plays a key role in the cultivation and balance of civilizations. Throughout history, water conflicts are believed to have contributed to the collapse of several major civilizations dating back to the Akkadian Empire in Mesopotamia over 4,200 years ago.1Weather Underground Similar conflicts exist today and are increasingly exacerbated by a rapidly warming climate. Privatizing local and regional water supplies has been one ‘solution’ that cities across the U.S. have hoped would save their infrastructure, now degraded and vulnerable due to low-funding by the federal government. However, many are concerned that privatizing critical resources, including vital water supplies, could open the door to higher levels of corruption and environmental damage.

Privatizing Water

Due to aging infrastructure and budgetary concerns, many local governments are selling their water rights to large corporations. These private companies promise to fix infrastructure and deliver water to citizens in exchange for control over the city’s water supply. This transfer of ownership is called the privatization of water.2Aker, P.

When local governments turn over their water rights, public interest falls into private hands. Managers of these corporations generally focus on the interests of their stockholders rather than the interests of the consumers, making profits more important than the quality of service.3Aker, P. This type of prioritization opens the gate to destructive environmental and social practices. Lower water quality due to insufficient regulations, higher prices, monopolistic approaches and an overall loss of public control are just some of the downfalls of privatizing water supplies.4Public Citizen Private corporations often lack the same accountability as the federal and local government does when it comes to quality of the water provided. This is a major drawback for the consumer.5Aker, P.

Community water distributary in East Porterville CA, a farm-workers’ town where all wells dried up, 2014

Furthermore, privatization has been linked to substantial layoffs as corporations aim to maximize profits by replacing high-level workers with fewer, less experienced and therefore lower paid employees.6Johnson, R. A., Stuart, A., & Joffe, M. This ‘shortcut’ approach compromises on safety measures and important regulations. Other concerns with privatization include the multiple losses of transparency, long-term protection of infrastructure, ensured water supplies and the ability to voice concerns to elected or appointed city officials versus private-sector administrators when issues arise.7National Academies Press Several cities across the country are showing support in banning certain forms of this type of privatization. Baltimore, Maryland, was the first U.S. city to ban privatization of their water supply, with over 77% of the city’s population backing the ban.8Biron, C. L.

Poorer communities often suffer the most from private enterprises. When interests are directed to pleasing shareholders, services are centered around communities with money, thus little concern is given to those who can’t keep up with rising prices.9Bayliss, K.

Courtesy of Food and Water Watch

Increased Water Costs

Millions of Americans are increasingly unable to pay their water bills, as prices have skyrocketed over the last decade. The Guardian conducted a study of 12 cities across the U.S. and compared increases in water bills over an eight-year period. They reported an average 80% increase in total water and sewage bills within the cities analyzed in their research.10Guardian News and Media

A study conducted by the Food & Water Watch looked at some of the largest privately-owned municipal water and sewer services in the U.S. in order to examine how prices increased over a 20-year period (1990-2010). The results showed an average $300 increase in annual water bills for individual households in just 11 years.11Aker, P. Privately-owned water services have generally accounted for a 59% cost increase compared to public water services.12Aker, P. In areas such as Austin, Texas, rates went up as much as 154% from 2010-2018.13Guardian News and Media That city’s average water bill in 2010 was $566, compared to 2018’s drastic average of $1,435.14Guardian News and Media The costs of privatized water also increased at 3 times the rate of inflation, making water exponentially more expensive over time.15Guardian News and Media

Aging infrastructure

Federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen 77% since 1977, leaving cities across the country with increasingly aging infrastructure and budgets unequipped to update facilities.16Institute for Agriculture and trade Policy While it’s widely acknowledged that America needs to update its water infrastructure, little progress or allocation of funds to be set aside for such projects has occurred. According to the Brookings Institution, “Only about 17% of utilities are confident that they can cover the cost of existing service through rates and fees – let alone pursue needed upgrades.”17Burke, A.

Around 69% of US dams were built before 1970, and many are rapidly deteriorating. Out of the 91,000 dams in the United States, one out of six is considered a high hazard.18Wei-Haas, M. The label of “high-hazard dams” refers to the possibility of substantial loss of life and property damage if a dam were to fail.19Kane, J. Hurricane Katrina offers an example of the high price to be paid when man-made concrete infrastructure fails, including dams. As a result of that storm, levees and flood walls fell in over 50 flooded locations, leaving 80% of New Orleans underwater and over 1,500 human deaths, many due to drowning.20Pruitt, S. The most common reasons for dam failures are overtopping, foundation defects, cracking, inadequate maintenance and upkeep and piping.21Association of State Dam Safety

Conclusion

Unfortunately, aging infrastructure, record mega-droughts and political interests are now shaping the way water is accessed, distributed and controlled in the United States. Climate emergencies are complicating and worsening these issues that threaten the future safety and viability of our nation’s water-distribution systems within numerous cities. It is time the US federal government invested in long-term water infrastructure – as it did decades ago – to protect the availability of water, instead of letting private corporations take hold of precious resources.


Sources:

Aker, P. author B. A. (n.d.). Water privatization: Facts and figures. Food & Water Watch. Retrieved September 20, 2021, by MO.  https://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/2015/08/02/water-privatization-facts-and-figures/.

Bayliss, K. (2003, February 3). Privatization and poverty: The distributional impact of utility privatization. Wiley Online Library. Retrieved September 24, 2021, by MO. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-8292.00207.

Biron, C. L. (2018, November 7). Baltimore votes to become first large U.S. city to ban water privatization. Reuters. Retrieved September 25, 2021, by MO. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-water-cities/baltimore-votes-to-become-first-large-u-s-city-to-ban-water-privatization-idUSKCN1NC2O4.

Burke, A. (2017, March 21). 10 facts about water policy and infrastructure in the US. Brookings. Retrieved September 24, 2021, by MO. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2017/03/21/10-facts-about-water-policy-and-infrastructure-in-the-us/#cancel.

Dam failures and incidents: Association of state dam safety.” Dam Failures and Incidents | Association of State Dam Safety. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2021, by MO. https://damsafety.org/dam-failures.

Guardian News and Media. (2020, June 23). Revealed: Millions of Americans can’t afford water as bills RISE 80% in a decade. The Guardian. Retrieved September 25, 2021, by MO. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jun/23/millions-of-americans-cant-afford-water-bills-rise.

Johnson, R. A., Stuart, A., & Joffe, M. (2016, March 31). Privatization and layoffs. Reason Foundation. Retrieved September 21, 2021, by MO. https://reason.org/e-brief/privatization-and-layoffs/.

Kane, J. (2017, February 16). Oroville dam, a reminder that infrastructure challenges go far beyond Washington. Brookings. Retrieved September 26, 2021, by MO. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/02/16/oroville-dam-a-reminder-that-infrastructure-challenges-go-far-beyond-washington/#:~:text=Most%20dams%20nationally%20are%20reaching,financial%20burden%20for%20many%20places.

Letter demanding no water privatization in the infrastructure plan.” Institute for Agriculture and trade Policy. (n.d.). Retrieved September 24, 2021, by MO. https://www.iatp.org/documents/letter-demanding-no-water-privatization-infrastructure-plan.

Public Citizen. Top 10 Reasons to Oppose Water Privatization. Protecting Health, Safety & Democracy. Retrieved September 22, 2021, by MO. https://www.citizen.org/wp-content/uploads/Top_10_PDF.pdf

“Privatization of water services in the United States: An assessment of issues and experience” at NAP.edu. National Academies Press: OpenBook. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2021, by MO. https://www.nap.edu/read/10135/chapter/3#28.

Pruitt, S. (2020, August 27). How levee failures made hurricane katrina a bigger disaster. History.com. Retrieved September 25, 2021, by MO. https://www.history.com/news/hurricane-katrina-levee-failures.

Ten civilizations or nations that collapsed from drought.” Weather Underground. (n.d.). Retrieved September 21, 2021, from https://www.wunderground.com/blog/JeffMasters/ten-civilizations-or-nations-that-collapsed-from-drought.html.

Wei-Haas, M. (2021, May 3). The problem America has neglected for too long: Deteriorating dams. Science. Retrieved September 26, 2021, by MO. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/problem-america-neglected-too-long-deteriorating-dams?loggedin=true.

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